By Craig Easton
This is the second installment of a three part series about the future of Scottish football. Parts one and two can be read here and here.
Editorial Note: These articles were written when Rangers financial troubles' were emerging but before anything had been decided regarding their league status.
The general consensus among fans, journalists, players, managers, and anyone who cares to commentate on the state of Scottish football is that a restructuring of the league set-up is vital to the future of the game. At its inception in 1998, the SPL consisted of 10 teams, but for the 2000/01 this was increased to the current 12 team structure which is wholly unpopular.
CURRENT LEAGUE STRUCTURE
Each team in the SPL plays 33 games before the league splits in half in April, when the top six and bottom six teams play their five remaining games against the sides in their section. The bottom team is relegated while the top three qualify to play in Europe the following season. Before I even delve into the pros and cons of this set-up, there is a glaringly obvious problem with this model - a lack of fairness. The SPL tries to ensure that every team plays each other twice at home and twice away, but the split makes this numerically impossible. For example, before the split, the teams will play each other three times. Some teams will play certain opposition twice at home and once away, and vice versa. In theory, when the league splits, a team fighting relegation could look back on earlier fixtures against those sides in the top half and argue a case that their campaign has been tougher if they’ve played superior opposition away from home more times than one of their fellow relegation contenders.
This is the foundation on why the league cannot be judged to be fair. The SPL is the only competition in Europe that operates an uneven split league format. Imagine telling Alex Ferguson that he has to visit a team with a good home record more times than one of his fellow title contenders, while they (Man City, Arsenal, Chelsea, or whoever it may be) get to play them twice at home. I don’t think Sir Alex would be too pleased if he looked back at the corresponding results come the end of the season and figured out those games contributed to Manchester United not winning the title. It just wouldn’t happen.
RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN?
However, that’s not the only argument against the current format. The fact teams are still playing each other three, four and sometimes even five or six times a season (if they get drawn together in cup competitions) is a major negative for most fans who would like to see a larger SPL. The players are also bored of the monotony of playing against each other so many times in a season. It was one of the reasons why I enjoyed my time in England so much. Playing a team once at home and once away keeps things fresh and interesting for both the players and the supporters. Henry McLeish acknowledges this in his review of Scottish football, and recognises there are multiple options for a new look SPL although worryingly, the 10 team format is one of the models discussed. The SPL’s Ian Blair admits, “If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, we wouldn’t do anything like we’ve got now and if we were running it purely for sport, we’d also do things differently; but this is a business as well as a sport”.
Unfortunately he’s right. It’s not so easy just to rip it up and start again. The financial implications weigh heavily on the decision making process - something Falkirk manager Steven Pressley sees as holding back progress. He said, “I think every decision in the game at the top level is driven by TV money, not what is best for it as a whole. We need to listen to supporters; 85% of them want the league structure to change”.
According to Alan Harris (chairman of the Scottish Council Supporters Direct) the vast majority of fans want a 16 or 18 team league and Stephen Thompson (Dundee United chairman and SPL board member) can understand this. “From a football point of view most people would like to see a bigger league but financially it’s a completely different scenario altogether”, says Thompson. “It’s difficult to get the balance right and no-one can agree on anything at the moment; everyone’s finances are different, turnovers are different, fan base, debt, ambition. What you would like to see footballing-wise is different from a financial perspective and it’s trying to strike that balance.”
Achieving that balance is made all the more difficult by the operational structure of the SPL. The chairmen of the 12 SPL clubs are collectively responsible for any changes made concerning the business of the league. The voting structure in place at the moment means that 11 out of the 12 teams all have to agree for any proposal to be passed and as you can imagine, that is a very rare occurrence, exacerbated by the dominant position of the Old Firm. It doesn’t matter what topic is on the agenda - restructuring or the distribution of income from television rights; if Rangers and Celtic don’t agree with everyone else, then it won’t happen. That might all change as the other 10 clubs are making moves to push through proposals concerning the voting structure itself, which may result in a more democratic 9-3 majority coming into effect.
Taking some power away from the Old Firm will certainly give the other clubs more of a say regarding the future size of the SPL but, as Stephen Thompson stated earlier, there’s no guarantee that anything will be resolved. The biggest question regarding change has to be: how many teams should be in the top league? Almost everyone I’ve spoken to that has a serious interest in the future of Scottish football, agree that this conundrum has to be addressed.
There are many possible permutations. The proposals for a larger SPL might be popular with supporters; however, some suggestions are more financially viable than others. According to the calculations of SPL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster, there will be roughly £20m lost revenue by changing to a 16 or 18 team league. Money, he says, the game can’t afford to lose. Ian Blair agrees with his boss and also argues that at this moment there isn’t enough quality across a broad enough spectrum to support a top tier of that size. Steven Pressley disagrees. “I think we need to get to about 18. I think that size of league gives clubs the opportunity to build.” He feels that in the current set-up, the standard of play and development of players is suffering, at the expense of surviving for another season. He said, “We’ve got a league where you can be sitting quite comfortably in fifth and then three or four games later you’re tenth and under pressure. You’ve got a situation where managers are under real pressure and while someone has to sit at the bottom of the league, there needs to be a transitional period at clubs and a bigger league would help”.
I would love to see an SPL where teams only play each other twice a season but both the league and the clubs have a valid point. An 18 team set up would affect the financial situation that’s in place at the moment because there wouldn’t be the four Old Firm games that the TV deal hinges on. Take away another two, or four full houses (depending on what half of the league they end up in) and the clubs will lose that extra revenue they usually get when the Old Firm visit. United’s Stephen Thompson clarifies the reliance on Rangers and Celtic with this example: “When we played Inverness we took £10,000 at the gate but when we play either of the Old Firm we take around £140,000”. Rightly or wrongly, clubs rely on this source of income, and budget accordingly. Thompson says, “I’m critical of the Old Firm, everyone has been...but we’ve got a £16m TV deal because of them and if we lost that every club in the SPL would be burst!”. Journalist, Jim Traynor surmises, “The TV deal isn’t for the benefit of Rangers and Celtic because they only get £1.2m from it, but the rest get £900,000, which is a lot of money for them”. Rangers and Celtic bring much needed revenue to the Scottish game and they both realise how much the other teams rely on them and they use this to their own advantage. The SPL is merely a vehicle for the Old Firm to attempt to realise their European ambitions.
FINDING THE BALANCE
Jim Traynor believes a bigger SPL is the way forward; however, taking into account the financial implications, he realises it’s not easy. A 14 team top league is his compromise. In his model every team plays each other home and away, then the league splits evenly (seven and seven) with each team playing twelve fixtures thereafter which equates to a total of 38 games. He thinks this format can satisfy most people. He says, “You still get the four Old Firm games that the TV want, with the final one being sold at a premium along with play-offs for Europe and relegation to try and make up some of the money which will be lost by having two more teams in the league”. Ian Blair can also see the merits of a 14 team SPL, while Stephen Thompson would stick with the twelve and introduce play-offs to give another team from the First Division a chance of winning promotion.
Play-offs are an excellent way of generating excitement toward the end of a season. The fans respond to cup final like occasions while the games give teams something to play for. They encourage more competition while at the same time giving the clubs involved a chance to earn some extra income which could help them if they win promotion, or to re-build for another challenge the following season. In England the play-offs are a success. There are fewer meaningless games even in a league of 24, and I myself have been in a position with five or six games to go where a good run from mid-table could have resulted in my team achieving a much sought after play-off place. It’s not unusual for the SPL title to be decided before the split or earlier and, while this season the fight for European places has been interesting, the title is normally a foregone conclusion between the Old Firm.
CLOSING THE GAP
SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan doesn’t think size is the issue. He’s more concerned about the quality of the football, stating, “We’ve got 42 teams, would we really have that amount if we were starting again?”.
He thinks that the quality of football in Scotland suffers because there are too many teams operating as professional clubs compared with the population of just under 6 million, and I agree. Regan admits, “The biggest challenge for us is the gap between the First Division and the SPL which I think is too wide, and it means that teams that get relegated like Falkirk and Hamilton struggle to keep their infrastructure in place”. The SPL’s Ian Blair also notes the disparity between the two leagues and says, “We have to find a way of narrowing the gap financially between the bottom of the SPL and the top of the First Division”. He echoes Regan when he describes relegation as “financially devastating”, and wants to help convince clubs in the top tier to give up some money and distribute it more evenly and into the league below, while also making sure that parachute payments are increased for those who are relegated to “soften the blow”. Falkirk manager Stephen Pressley is well aware of the financial gulf. When they were relegated two years ago he had to reduce his playing budget by 75% - the whole club was affected.
“We’re driven by the TV money and the four Old Firm games and forgetting about the supporters. A reality check will come when the TV money disappears and clubs are left wondering, ‘Where are the supporters?’ Well, you neglected them for the last 10 years.” He continues, “The fans aren’t always right and they don’t always know the ins and outs but in any other business, if your customers are telling you something and you ignore them, eventually they’ll turn their back on you.”
Scottish football can’t afford to allow that to happen. Attendances are falling and in the current economic climate, anyone who chooses to spend their money on attending a football match is making a major decision.
There are other activities vying for that hard earned cash, and at the moment going to a match isn’t necessarily the most attractive way to spend a large amount of a supporter’s weekly wage. On average, ticket prices are around the £20 mark with most clubs charging closer to £30 for derbies and Old Firm matches because they know people will pay a premium for these. On the whole, season tickets are good value for money. Hibs chairman Rod Petrie, says that it works out at £12 a game if you invest in one at Easter Road, but there is no such discount for the travelling fan. Adding up travel costs and food, following your club around the country is an expensive business. A possible incentive to get more away fans through the gates could be to offer discounts to anyone who is a season ticket holder, but what most fans want to see is a reduction in prices across the board.
Ian Blair acknowledges that attendances are generally falling. However, he points out that relative to population, more people go to watch top class football in Scotland than anywhere else in Europe. That’s a surprising statistic and he understands it has to be taken in context. He says that while there are roughly the same number of fans going to games now as there were in the late sixties and early seventies, not as many are supporting their local teams as Blair did back then. “I’m a Morton fan for my sins”, he admits, and says there is a “Huge polarisation toward the Old Firm”. He’s not wrong. Supporters buses leave from towns and cities all over the country, ferrying Rangers and Celtic fans to Ibrox and Celtic Park or wherever else they might be playing that day. Both those clubs and their fans will argue that their large travelling support is what’s helping to keep some clubs afloat and this is hard to deny, but if more people supported their local team instead of either of the Old Firm, then the clubs wouldn’t have to rely on them as much.
THE BUNDESLIGA SHOWS THE WAY
With ticket prices no more than €20 (£16) Germany knows where its priorities lie. Without doubt, the fans come first, and it’s no surprise the Bundesliga has the highest average attendance of Europe’s five major leagues. That reasonable ticket price looks an even better deal when you take into account that it doubles as a free rail pass. It would have cost a good deal less to soak up the title winning atmosphere on the world’s largest terracing, Dortmund’s Sud Tribune, than it would have taking in a Hibs game at Easter Road or any other SPL ground this season - and incredibly most in the First Division as well. The supporters aren’t treated as a commodity like they often are in Britain, but are thought of as the “core value” of clubs according to the Bundesliga chief executive Christian Seifert (talking to Jamie Jackson in an article for The Guardian two years ago).
Borussia Dortmund have recently been crowned German Champions for the second season in a row; however, three different teams have had their hands on the title in the previous four seasons. There hasn’t been a German Champions League winner for a decade, but the domestic league is certainly competitive. The winner of the 18 team Bundesliga wasn’t decided until the third last week of the 2011/12 season, while the battle for European places went right to the wire before it was decided which teams would qualify for either Champions League or Europa League football next season. At the other end, with two sides going down and a third entering a play-off with teams from Bundesliga 2, there was plenty of excitement to keep fans of the bottom clubs on the edge of their seats almost until the final game of the season.
Scottish football can look to the Bundesliga for inspiration. It’s true the fan base of most German clubs are not only large but extremely loyal. Instead of focusing on TV money, the clubs look after their support and make going to a game an attractive prospect as well as value for money. The owners have also curtailed wages and united to focus on youth, and while this might limit their European ambitions in the short-term, they are once again producing talented players to revive the national team. Steven Pressley urges Scottish clubs to learn from them; “The example we need to take from the German model is of all the clubs actually working together in the best interest of their game. In this country, it’s all about self-interest”.
The relationships between the SFA, SPL, and SFL are stronger, and dare I say it, friendlier than they have ever been. I feel there’s a collective attitude in place to work together in order to take the game forward. However, the future of the Scottish domestic game lies in the main part with the chairmen of the SPL clubs who ultimately decide which path it takes. According to Pressley, this is a major problem in itself. He said “You can have no idea about football, buy a football club because you’re wealthy and then have a major influence on the future of our game.” He would like to see the voting structure abolished and an independent board set up to make the important decisions or at the very least for the SFA to take a more active role.
The Scottish FA have recently shown their intention is to do just that. Along with the SPL, they are keen to introduce UEFA’s Financial Fair Play initiative which will limit clubs’ spending on players wages. While most are managing their finances better than ever, the cases of Hearts and Rangers this season underline how important it is to put some sort of legislation in place. Stewart Regan has also not so subtly hinted to clubs that if a decision is not reached on the voting structure soon, then the Scottish FA will take a more active role. I think that a governing body should be pushing its members to make decisions for the good of the game - in fact it’s their responsibility, and I think Stewart Regan understands this. The SFA and the SPL have been criticised for standing idly by while the game has deteriorated over the years and both organisations will admit to being on the periphery for too long - but they can only do so much. Scottish football is largely in the state it is now due to the decisions made by the clubs who play in its top league. History will judge them for what has gone before, but they have an opportunity to put it right. It just remains to be seen when, and if, they take it.
Craig Easton is a professional football player with more than two hundred appearances in the Scottish top flight - most of them with Dundee United - and with 22 Scottish Under 21 caps. Currently at Torquay, he has just finished a degree in Professional Sports Writing and Broadcasting at Staffordshire University. He can be followed on Twitter.